HONG KONG/BEIRUT – Sajida al-Rishawi hid a belt of explosives and another packed with ball bearings under her baggy, floor-length coat and set off with her husband to blow up a hotel full of wedding guests in Jordan’s capital in November 2005. Her bomb failed to explode.
Nine years later, al-Rishawi is at the center of a hostage-swap demand after Islamic State militants sought her release from a Jordanian prison’s death row in exchange for Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist they’ve threatened to kill. A shackled Goto explained the group’s demands in a Saturday video where he held up a photo of the decapitated body of a second Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa.
The purported demand by the Islamic State group has sparked a torrent of speculation about why this woman in her mid-40s has been singled out. The answer may be explained by a combination of her links to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq branch, killed in a 2006 U.S. airstrike, and an attempt by Islamic State group to test the waters for high-value prisoner swaps.
“Getting governments started on the habit of prisoner swapping is kind of like a gateway drug,” Joseph Franco, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said in an emailed response to questions. “You start with a little weed, then you end up with really nasty stuff up your veins.”
Last year, Jordan returned a Libyan jihadi in exchange for the Jordanian ambassador to Libya, who had been taken hostage. The kingdom is now looking for ways to free a pilot captured by the Islamic State group after his plane crashed in Syria last month during a mission against the militants.
Al-Rishawi is the sister of a close aide of al-Zarqawi, who was one of the masterminds of the Amman hotel attacks, Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher told Cable News Network in 2005.
The proposed prisoner swap “is very illustrative of where they trace their narrative from — al-Zarqawi is the fountainhead of Islamic State, not al-Qaida,” said Sajjan Gohel of the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation think tank. “Zarqawi was the individual who brought beheadings to Iraq, created sectarian conflict, carried out attacks against Western troops, killed people who didn’t abide by his rule. He was also an individual who fell out with the al-Qaida leadership.”
By saving al-Rishawi, the Islamic State group would “boost the morale of its fighters,” said Fayez Dweiri, a retired major general in the Jordanian Army and a military analyst.
In a 2005 confession on Jordanian television days after the hotel bombings, al-Rishawi described her journey from Iraq to Jordan and how her husband had taught her how to use the bomb in a rented apartment, according to an account in The Guardian newspaper.
Al-Rishawi described the wedding at the hotel attended by children, women and men, and said that once inside the venue, she had gone to one corner and her husband the other.
“My husband organized everything,” al-Rishawi said in the Jordanian broadcast, translated and aired on CNN. Her husband detonated his bomb and she tried to explode her belt but it wouldn’t detonate, so she “left running” with other people in the hotel. al-Rishawi fled to an apartment where she was later arrested.
During the broadcast al-Rishawi was shown wearing the disarmed explosive belt over her coat and demonstrating how she planned to pull a red cord to detonate the explosives, The Guardian reported.
Later at the trial, al-Rishawi pleaded not guilty and said through her lawyer that she never tried to detonate her bomb and was forced to take part in the attack. But an explosives expert testified that the trigger mechanism on al-Rishawi’s belt had jammed.
Al-Rishawi was sentenced to death by hanging and an appeals court later ratified her sentence, describing her as “guilty beyond doubt of possessing explosives and having had the intention and the will to carry out terrorist attacks whose outcome is destruction and death.”
Jordan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2006, but capital punishment was revived in 2014. Her sentence can be overturned by Jordan’s King Abdullah II.